The Nobel Prize Is Really Annoying

nobelOne of the chapters in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is titled “Alfred Nobel’s Other Mistake.” The first being dynamite, of course, and the second being the Nobel Prize. When I first read it I was a little exasperated by Feynman’s kvetchy tone — sure, there must be a lot of nonsense associated with being named a Nobel Laureate, but it’s nevertheless a great honor, and more importantly the Prizes do a great service for science by highlighting truly good work.

These days, as I grow in wisdom and kvetchiness myself, I’m coming around to Feynman’s point of view. I still believe that on balance the Prizes are a very good thing, and generally they honor some of the very best work in physics. (Some of my best friends are winners!) But having written a book about the Higgs boson discovery, which is on everybody’s lips as a natural candidate (though not the only one!), all of the most annoying aspects of the process are immediately apparent.

The most annoying of all the annoying aspects is, of course, the rule in physics (and the other non-peace prizes, I think) that the prize can go to at most three people. This is utterly artificial, and completely at odds with the way science is actually done these days. In my book I spread credit for the Higgs mechanism among no fewer than seven people: Philip Anderson, Francois Englert, Robert Brout (who is now deceased), Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble. In a sensible world they would share the credit, but in our world we have endless pointless debates (the betting money right now seems to be pointing toward Englert and Higgs, but who knows). As far as I can tell, the “no more than three winners” rule isn’t actually written down in Nobel’s will, it’s more of a tradition that has grown up over the years. It’s kind of like the government shutdown: we made up some rules, and are now suffering because of them.

The folks who should really be annoyed are, of course, the experimentalists. There’s a real chance that no Nobel will ever be given out for the Higgs discovery, since it was carried out by very large collaborations. If that turns out to be the case, I think it will be the best possible evidence that the system is broken. I definitely appreciate that you don’t want to water down the honor associated with the prizes by handing them out to too many people (the ranks of “Nobel Laureates” would in some sense swell by the thousands if the prize were given to the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, as they should be), but it’s more important to get things right than to stick to some bureaucratic rule.

The worst thing about the prizes is that people become obsessed with them — both the scientists who want to win, and the media who write about the winners. What really matters, or should matter, is finding something new and fundamental about how nature works, either through a theoretical idea or an experimental discovery. Prizes are just the recognition thereof, not the actual point of the exercise.

Of course, none of the theorists who proposed the Higgs mechanism nor the experimentalists who found the boson actually had “win the Nobel Prize” as a primary motivation. They wanted to do good science. But once the good science is done, it’s nice to be recognized for it. And if any subset of the above-mentioned folks are awarded the prize this year or next, it will be absolutely well-deserved — it’s epochal, history-making stuff we’re talking about here. The griping from the non-winners will be immediate and perfectly understandable, but we should endeavor to honor what was actually accomplished, not just who gets the gold medals.

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44 Responses to The Nobel Prize Is Really Annoying

  1. thm says:

    Agreed, that “winning the Nobel Prize” is never the primary goal of scientists. I’ve always found this quite a contrast with, say, baseball players inducted into the Hall of Fame, in which it seems perfectly acceptable to claim that being inducted into the Hall was always a lifelong dream.

  2. Mark Weitzman says:

    I think the Nobel prize for each field should be split into two separate prizes. The first would honor great discoveries like the special theory of relativity, general relativity, or renormalization in QFT, Lamb shift, asymptotic freedom, Higgs boson etc.. The second would honor individuals for being great physicists and contributing to the field. Thus the first type of prize would do away with the absurdity of relativity never being given a Nobel prize (due to antisemitism in Germany and Europe at the time and anti-Jewish physics of relativity, and thus Einstein being given prize for photoelectric effect and other contributions to physics.) And the second type of prize would go to physicists like Hawking and Witten, who clearly have made great contributions to theoretical physics, but whose theories will probably never be verified in their lifetime if ever, but whose contributions are undeniable.

    In the case of the first type of prize, the Nobel committee could decide who (individuals, foundations, collaborations etc.) would receive the prize money, but the recognition would be clearly to the actual discovery/theory – so CERN itself could be given the prize for verification of Higgs boson. In the second type of prize since it is the individual who is being honored for being a great physicist – his entire body of work could be considered, and as many individuals could be so honored as the committee desires.

  3. Thomas H. Jones says:

    Perhaps the “collaborators” should incorporate since corporations are people too. 🙂

  4. Ramanan says:

    Who can forget ignoring Freeman Dyson – one of the greatest ever.

  5. Ramesam says:

    “The most annoying of all the annoying aspects is, of course, the rule in physics (and the other non-peace prizes, I think) that the prize can go to at most three people.”

    If one begins cut and chop the rules, I guess that “recent death” of the scientist too should be deleted – who can forget Rosalind Franklin or Amos Tversky (Economics).

  6. Dave Greene says:

    In addition to awarding the medals to a small number of recipients maybe they can add an Honorable Mention list so folks will know the giants upon whose shoulders the winners stood.

  7. K Ken Nakamura says:


    I was a big baseball fan, but never kept track of who was inducted to the Hall of Fame. What I was interested was stats like “who won triple crown, set home run record, etc.”

  8. Thomas H. Jones says:

    You guys do realize how much you have in common with those engaged in the debates surrounding the best way to decide who should compete for the BCS championship.

  9. Syl says:

    We can understand why physicists, after having spent their lives on the study of intricate – yet fundamental – matters, may feel gratified by such public recognition.

    But, truly, we love you guys because you do what you do. Thank you.

    And in the end, in this beautiful Multiverse you painstakingly reveal to us, the bling of human medals doesn’t shine.

  10. Shecky R says:

    I think you’ve basically stated the reasons why Feynman sincerely felt all such prizes/awards were silly… they never truly recognize all who play vital roles in most scientific achievements. The awards are nice, deserving P.R. for a few people and a specific science accomplishment, but also insure that a lot of worthy people are passed over.

  11. Hi Sean,

    A couple of months ago when Richard Easther was at UCSC, we had a conversation along these lines and decided it might be fun if FQXi gave out an annual prize for an *idea* that deserves to be celebrated. This might indirectly honor that idea’s originators, but the focus would be fairly different and we might even sponsor a mini symposium/celebration for the idea. (There would not be anyone to give a monetary prize to, by design).

    A couple of examples we came up with were : 1) Decoherence, 2) The standard model of cosmology.

    I’d love to hear thoughts on whether/how to do this, and nominations for the first prize!

  12. King Cynic says:

    If Doctors Without Borders can receive a Nobel Prize as an organization (as they in fact did!), then why not the ATLAS or CMS collaborations?

    But start first with the SNO and Super-Kamiokande collaborations for discovering neutrino oscillations.

  13. Avattoir says:

    KC, that was the Nobel PEACE Prize, which comes via the Norwegian parliament, not any of the Swedish Nobel committees. Different rules were set. I’m not saying the Swedes shouldn’t break the rules in this case involving such a bigg deal as the Higgs — they clearly should — but not just in physics, all sorts of folks go underprized: just consider literature.

  14. Sean Carroll says:

    Anthony, I think it’s an interesting idea, but would require some careful tuning to be effective. It’s slightly reminiscent of Science mag’s “Breakthrough of the Year.” But you notice that doesn’t get too much publicity. I’m that’s partly because people like to hear about people winning prizes, not just ideas. Given that a big part of the motivation for a prize is increased public awareness (of the winner, of the work celebrated, of the awarding institution), making people care is an important consideration.

    Also, the possibility that “the standard model of cosmology” counts as an idea seems to me to be evidence that the notion is a bit loose. I’m not sure what “idea” that really is.

    An alternative would be something like “the most interesting/innovative paper in foundational physics within the past year.” There would be plenty of good candidates, and actual human beings who would be able to accept the prize.

  15. John says:

    From reading your book, I don’t see why you think Peter Higgs would deserve a Nobel Prize. Yes, they did find a new particle, but it was only Higgs-Like. They couldn’t prove for certain that it actually was the Higgs. Then there was the problem of it having the wrong charge, and they assumed there had to be another particle just because of Feynman diagrams that had nothing to do with the mathematics. It really makes you wonder if he just got the charge wrong. Then the mass range that they checked for it was the last range of masses that they would have expected it to be in from the theory.

    One cool trick I have found is if you take the mass of the W and the Z boson, then convert their mass from GeV into Newton Meters. You can create a right triangle that will give you close to the same mass of the Higgs-Like boson in Newton Meters. It would seem that the W and Z boson transfers it mass to the Higgs-Like boson in almost a Newtonian manner. Who would have guessed? I would like my Nobel Prize now, lol.

  16. John says:

    At least physics is one of the good ones.
    The prizes for Economics and peace are really just awful.

  17. It is really annoying that a real inconvenient truth did not receive a Nobel Prize: Christopher Hitchens’ “Hell’s Angel”.

  18. Not annoying: Peter Higgs and Francois Englert.

  19. Nathan says:

    Reading the tragi-comic efforts of the Frascati group to get their electron/positron storage rings to work in the 60s makes you really appreciate the efforts of the experimentalists, especially those from previous eras. Perhaps if the team from the CBX had been awarded a Nobel immediately (as is obvious from hindsight) the playing field may have been levelled somewhat.

  20. Pingback: Physics Nobel goes to Englert and Higgs, Sean Carroll kvetches « Why Evolution Is True

  21. Kevin Peter Hickerson says:

    The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”

  22. Paul says:

    As a friend of one of the group of people that you mention in the third paragraph who deserve credit, I have to say that this is the fairest and most honest critique of the prize that I’ve read. The level of politics involved is astounding and disturbing. Thanks for your perspective.

  23. Meh says:

    in regards to the public awareness aspect…

    I looked at the comments section for an article about the potential science winners on Yahoo and found countless comments along the lines of: “Gal durn prize is worthless now that Barrack HUSSEIN Obama done won it fur being a community organizer!”.
    Tarnation! I do declare! There will always be stupid people in the world.

    I think that the 3 person limit is a good idea. All new ideas and discoveries come from the culmination of all past discoveries & ideas plus new insight… and possibly popping an adderall. There’s a looming philosophical argument to be made: How many degrees of Albert Einstein to incorporate when deciding the list of recipients. Do you include the countless contractors and electricians that helped make CMS and ATLAS possible? I think their prize is saying “I can verify that I was a member of the ###/^^^^^ team”

    now get back to work.

  24. Also in honor of Robert Brout. Had he lived to see the day, he would have been the third.

  25. John C. Thorne says:

    The Nobel prize was intended to “go to” an idea, invention, development – not an individual. It wasn’t supposed to work like the literature prize, which honors the artist and not an individual work. In this sense the Nobel’s in science are treated much like the Oscar’s prize for “best director” while Nobel seems to have intended them to be more like “best picture.” So, the winners of the science prizes are proxies/representatives for the idea much like the producer of the picture getting the Oscar for the film… Practically, giving the money to an institution has the potential do as much to further science as giving it to an individual, but by the time the prize is awarded, the project that produced the result is likely to have been dissolved/re-purposed. Giving the prize to high profile, productive leaders in the development of the idea does more, it seems to me, to promote science…by creating celebrity and attention to science as an endeavor. That’s worth something, somehow.